The last will be first and the first will be last in Jesus’ topsy-turvy kingdom, according to Dr. Todd Still, dean of George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
Still lectured on Mark 10:35-45, the primary New Testament text containing Jesus’ teaching on service, in his Monday morning workshop session at the Texas Baptists Annual Meeting.
This passage finds James and John making a shockingly bold request of Jesus; they ask to sit at His right and left hands in glory.
Headed on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, it seemed to them the ideal time to ask about how the pecking order would soon shake out. At this point in their ministry, Jesus and His disciples have begun amassing crowds wherever they go.
“If you follow Jesus, you’ve begun to live large,” Still explained. “The period of obscurity is followed by the period of popularity, and all the sudden the crowds begin to swell and you think that this is a good gig, because all the sudden, here comes the kingdom and you’re riding in on Jesus’ coattails.”
“James and John were not upstart disciples,” he said. “They had followed hard after Jesus for some three years now, and so it is as surprising as it is disturbing that they would approach Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’”
Their request suggests that they viewed Jesus’ glory as imminent. If He was preparing to reign as king, they wanted to be the first to secure a prime spot in His cabinet.
Still said it’s important to situate this passage, and any passage we study, within its literary context. In the verses immediately preceding the passage, Jesus predicts His impending death and resurrection for a third time. In the verses following the passage, Jesus restores sight to a blind, begging man named Bartimaeus.
Still said Jesus foretells His death for the third time in Mark 10:32-34 because His disciples are constantly missing the point. They need repetition for the truth to sink in.
The timing of James and John’s request for a prominent seat is a strong sign that they still “don’t get it,” even after being told repeatedly. They’re quick to assure Him that they can drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism, but they have no clue what they’re asking. They don’t understand the agony that will mingle with Jesus’ glory, Still said.
The healing of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52 reinforces the disciples’ blindness. Unlike Bartimaeus, however, they don’t know how in-the-dark they are.
The other 10 disciples miss the point, too. They become indignant when they hear of James and John’s request — not because of how galling it was, but because they wish they had gotten there first.
At this, Jesus tells them to take a timeout. He explains His kingdom is not like any might-makes-right, militaristic rule they’ve seen before.
“In Jesus’ day, [people] boasted about the Pax Romana, but the Roman peace comes at a price,” Still said, “And it’s usually the Roman boot on the neck of a subject.”
Jesus’ paradigm is different.
“This [violence] is not the way we are,” Still said. “This is not the path we trod. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
Still offered three contemporary applications of Jesus’ teaching on service. First, that service isn’t optional; it’s essential. It’s part and parcel of conversion to turn from our idols and serve the true God instead. Second, in Jesus’ kingdom economy, service is tantamount to greatness. The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume is a prime example; the disciples saw her sacrifice as folly and waste, but Jesus declared that wherever the gospel is told, her story would be shared. Third, we are never more like Jesus than when we serve.
The attitude of conspicuous consumption has come home to roost in the church, Still said. From nitpicking the worship song selections to complaining about the lack of donuts, we treat church like an Olympic performance to be scored on a 1-10 scale.
Matthew 25:40 says “The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
“What if we were going to change our habit of mind and say, ‘How might I serve the Lord alongside this church? How might I serve the Lord alongside this convention?,’” Still asked.
Lauren Sturdy is the prospect researcher for Buckner International and a freelance writer for the 131st Texas Baptists Annual Meeting.